Canada had home-court advantage in more ways than one Sept. 19-21 at the Corral. Without their fancy clay courts and loud crowds, the Brazilian tennis squad found themselves pining for home during Davis Cup Competition in Calgary.
For 103 years, the best tennis nations in the world have been squaring off once a year, vying to win the coveted Davis Cup. This is not your average tennis tournament. The Davis Cup pits nation against nation, creating a lively (read: drunken) and fiercely nationalistic atmosphere. History and rowdy boozehounds--that, my friends, is sport.
But alas, in spite of our drunken, hockey-like cheers, the Canadian contingent at the tie between Canada and Brazil was out-cheered and out-chanted, but not out-played, by a colourful, 60-strong, Brazilian squad--including no less than 15 Ronaldos.
"I didn't know that there were so many Brazilians in Calgary," said Brazilian Flavio Saretta after defeating Canadian Frederic Niemeyer in four long sets (6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4) to open the tie. "Playing in Brazil is a lot different, here is quieter. It's a little intimidating playing in another country."
Court material also played a factor in intimidating Brazilians, as the tie was played on synthetic Teraflex hardcourt, whose speed is more condusive to the Canadian style of serve-and-volley play. A clay court in Brazil contributed to last year's untimely demise.
"The court has a lot to do with it, as does the altitude and playing at home," commented Canadian veteran Daniel Nestor on the Canadian success.
Canada has met Brazil four times in Davis Cup competition with a less-than-stellar 1-3 record. The latest of these meetings occurred last year in sunny Brazil, where the Brazilians cruised to a 4-0 triumph, an outcome threatening to repeat itself following Niemeyer's Friday night loss to Saretta.
Nestor had other ideas as he stepped onto the hardcourt with Brazilian phenom and former world #1 Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten. While Nestor's world rating in singles is a staggering #497, his doubles rating is at the other end of the spectrum at #5. His serve-and-volley style is also suited to the court used at the Corral, while Guga plays a hard-hitting baseline style, better suited to clay courts. His precise shot-making ability allowed him to hit more lines than Whitney and Bobby Brown, but he still came up short, dropping a stunning five setter (6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-5).
"It was a disappointing loss, but there's nothing I can do. The only difference is they have the momentum," said Kuerten at a solemn press conference. "I thought it was a pretty open match. He played at a great level. He has beaten many great players."
Nestor boasts a David-and-Goliath-like resume in Davis Cup action. Joining the team in 1991, he started his giant-slaying immediately, knocking off world #1 Stefan Edberg in his rookie year, then defeating the likes of Chilean Marcelo Rios and Peruvian Ivan Miranda later in his career.
However Nestor's real talent lies in his doubles play, where he is a former world #1, a 2000 Olympic gold medallist and a Grand Slam champion with a total of 31 career doubles titles. This expertise was evident during his doubles match with Niemeyer against Kuerten and Andre Sa, where the Canadians won handily in four sets (6-3, 6-2, 1-6, 6-2).
"You can't underestimate how good of a team Kuerten and Sa are," said Canadian Captain Grant Connell, after the doubles win on Saturday. "They beat us in Brazil. This win was huge."
The loss was also huge for Kuerten, who had yet to win a match in the tie.
"After yesterday's match and another win today, they are rising up and building confidence," said a dejected Kuerten. "Tomorrow we have no more options, so let's see how well we play with our backs against the wall."
Mental preparation and rest is key for athletes, as they can play up to three five-hour matches over three days. As we all know, it is easier to get a good night's sleep in your own bed.
"We go back to Brazil, get some sleep and return full of energy," laughed Kuerten when asked how he was going to prepare for Sunday. "When you dream it, you're there, and it's nice."
Kuerten was strong enough to play on the final day, defeating Simon Larose in four sets (7-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6). Nestor was less fortunate, stepping aside in favour of young Frank Dancevic for the last match of the tie against Saretta.
This was the big showdown my friends, tied up at 2-2, both teams needed this win. Dancevic, who had only found out he was playing that morning, showed up in grand style, winning the first two sets convincingly. Once again, the court favoured the Canadian flavour.
"My style is definitely suited to this court," commented Dancevic. "I hit the ball a little flatter and stay on the baseline."
Saretta came back in force in the third set, claiming it as his own, six games to three. Dancevic bridled his nerves in the fourth--although he threw his racket in a momentary lapse--taking the match and the tie in a suspenseful 9-7 tiebreak, sending the higher ranked Saretta to his locker room in tears.
"I went out and played my game. I just ripped everything he sent at me," said Dancevic while being swarmed by fans, teammates and reporters immediately following the victory. "I had nothing to lose. He's number 49 in the world and I'm not."
When asked how it felt to be a national hero, he laughed.
"I've got a couple more wins to finish off before I'm a hero."
Whether it was the court, the crowds or the teamwork, the Canadians took the hardware home with the promise of future wins.
"Nestor got us going, the veteran, and Dancevic closed it out, the future," said a proud Connell. "We had a team of heroes."